Jim Walker — A Flute Player’s Experience at Hollywood Studios

Jim Walker was one of the most in-demand flute players at Hollywood Studios between 1988 and 2010. That's what he talks about in this conversation with Flute Magazine.
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How did you become one of the most sought-after musicians in Hollywood Studios, and what is that kind of work like? Many may be familiar with the dynamics of working in a symphony orchestra, but indeed many wonder about how the work of a musician might be different in these studios.

It was great to work in the LA Philharmonic, but occasionally I would get called to work a few hours on a studio gig and make pretty good money. I really enjoyed that, and thankfully Anne Diener Zentner, the other principal flute, and I were able to work things out nicely. If a major motion picture was being filmed, she would play that week with the orchestra, and I would head over to the studio, picking up the following week in the Phil.

There are a few major differences between playing in orchestras and the studios, the most significant being the lack of job security in the freelance world. I know for a fact that some of the studio players didn’t want me coming in to do a session because that meant someone else wasn’t getting the gig that didn’t have the same steady income I did in the Phil. I was content to play second or third flute, but after I had several successful sessions with Sandy DeCrescent contracting, she would often give my name to new composers who came along and needed a flautist for their score. I always made sure to let people know how grateful I was to be there because, like I said, there was never any guarantee for your next show. I always knew that the gig I was working could very well have been my last. One does not want to make enemies, and I certainly did not want to have a bad day. In the orchestra, you gain tenure, and then you can have a bad day once in a while without being fired. You also don’t have to necessarily agree and be a real team player with the other players in the same way you do in the studio.

From a musical standpoint, there are also some key differences. You rarely have a sight-reading experience in a major symphony orchestra, and you will always get the music in advance, even for crazy contemporary pieces. In the studios, especially up until seven to ten years ago, we never received the music before the first session. You have to be a very good sight-reader, especially if you are in a solo chair. Now, things are often sent out electronically ahead of time to the players so they can get a good shot at it.

The other big thing when it comes to the woodwind choir specifically is that in a symphony orchestra, there could be situations where you knew a chord would just never be in tune. Some players are either adamant about not moving or actually incapable of hearing and fixing the tuning. My favourite quote of all time was from Carlo Maria Giulini when he was the conductor of the LA Phil between 1978 and 1983. We had just played a woodwind chord that was not particularly well in tune, and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, intonation is a matter of morality”. We all felt like a dagger had been thrown into our hearts. I counsel my students who want to become symphonic players to find a way to develop comradery between the other woodwind players in order to play well as a section. It has to be a team effort.

Unfortunately, I can think of several examples of principal flute and principal oboe players who would literally turn their back to each other and refuse to communicate musically. That is a significant contrast within studio culture. One cannot have that kind of ego because, if you do, it could cost you and everyone else their jobs. There is a sense of teamwork there that breeds honesty. If I am out of tune or late on an entrance, I want anyone who is listening to tell me! The sense of comradery in the studio had to be in effect because we were playing with new players all the time, and it didn’t matter who they were; the product had to be excellent. I would be as bold as to say that 5-10% of professional players are either incapable of hearing bad pitch or are unwilling to adjust their intonation for the sake of playing in tune as a group. When you give a musician tenure, sometimes it can get to their head and cause an ego flareup. The standing rule for most orchestras is that you only lose your job when your level of playing drops below the level at which you were hired, and for a player who has been around for 30 years, that can be hard to determine legally.

[External link: A list of motion pictures Jim has played on 1988 – 2010]

Full Interview: “I Counsel My Students Who Want to Become Symphonic Players to Find a Way to Develop Comradery Between the Other Woodwind Players in Order to Play Well as a Section. It Has to Be a Team Effort”

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